WITHIN THE SAME NINO . TADEU CHIARELLI
For some time now two segments of Nino Cais’ works have unsettled me: the collages and self-portraits. As I see, these works operate in a contradictory way and, as in a dream, seem to present concomitant monologues by an actor and his double in the same stage. Which one is the real one? Could it be possible to distinguish them? These questions are invalid because, irretrievably, both are one. This dissociation of procedures and purposes seems to be the main element which constitutes Nino’s production – it points towards some kind of allegory of our times.
The chance to do this show (and this essay) indicating groups of Nino’s collages in relation to some of his self-portraits allowed me to deepen a bit that uneasiness but not appease it completely. Planning the exhibition and writing this text did not present me with a full understanding of Nino’s process, but allowed me to share with the public the possibility to reflect upon the complexity of his work, a portrait of the situation of today’s individual before (and immersed in) a universe of images that characterizes our daily lives.
The photographic and post-photographic images that surround us mostly replicate some traditional categories of painting: portraits, nudes, landscapes, still-lifes and, within the universe that they share, there are some small photographic subgroups such as “anthropological” or “humanist” photos, among others. If we look closely at Nino’s production it is clear how both his self-portraits and his collages – which are divided into individual and collective portraits, nudes, landscapes and still-lifes – also obey the normatives of the traditional genres of painting.
If paintings are seen in exhibitions and their images disseminated via Internet, catalogs and books, so are photos. However, as the North-American critic Susan Sontag suggested, because there is a similarity between the medium of the image in an “autonomous” photo and the reproduction of this same image in a magazine or catalog, the photo looses less when it becomes a reproduction. The situation regarding the painting is different (1).
Another feature that photography is not supposed to share with painting is its capacity of manifesting itself through “photographic essays”, series of images regarding one theme (and eventual variations) which occupy the artist for a certain period of time. In its turn, the painter instead of producing series presents his works by phases, something significantly different from the concept of series.
It is common to want to see the next when we examine a photograph. We are almost certain that it is part of a series. This happens because it seems that the meaning of the first image will only be complete when we see the next one and the next and so on. To contemplate just one photo can frustrate the spectator if he or she can not achieve the general sense of what the photographer wanted to communicate (2). The case is different with painting because the meaning of the work is nowhere else but in the work - and certainly not in a phase it integrates.
Books about a painter’s work and a photographer’s work tend to be different: although both present themselves under the “aura” of books about “artists” (could be that the subject of these books may or may not be artists), books on painters distinguish themselves by being more faithful to the unfolding of the various phases of the honored painter, regardlessly of the liberties taken by the editor (that can be a specialist or the artist or even both). Books on photographers tend to suffer greater impact by the editor’s work. In these we frequently sense the obedience to the sequential character of the images more subordinated to the desire to strengthen the general direction of the series instead of to the possibility of the meaning of each photo in particular. It seems this happens because the production of a book of photographs is subject to two authorships: the first being the photographer’s who produced the photos in a certain period; the second, the editor’s (that can even be the photographer himself, but in a different stage of his career). This situation is linked to the dependency that the photograph bears in relation to the set of images which it integrates (the original “photo essay”) or the group into which the photo is later put by the photographer or the editor.
In turn, this aspect points to the fact that a photographic image is, or can be understood as, a signifier, a segment of a discourse that always transcends it and that can give it new meanings directed by the interests of those who formulate it.
Once these features suggested by the observation of the universe of the photographic images are established (especially those disseminated through books and/or catalogs and magazines) it would be appropriate now to take a closer look at Nino’s production by describing the actions he performs on the photographs he finds published in books, catalogs etc. Actually, there are specific types of actions which start his process:
A1) The artist collects books, catalogs and magazines, presenting photos that repeat traditional artistic categories: individual or collective portraits, landscapes and still-lifes
A2) The artist rips out the pages that contain these photos
A3) The artist cuts out the images.
During the process of the second or third type of actions it is important to note that Nino, while doing it, removes the selected image from the original context in which it was placed either by the author of the image and/or by the editor. Thus, the artist appropriates the chosen image and by doing so transforms it into a fragment, a residue, remainings or ruins of what must have been the original meaning of the publication that first presented it.
Once one of these operations is done, the artist begins a second stage of the process that can occur through three types of procedures:
B1) He overlaps some object to the image / fragment that changes its configuration: a strip of cloth, a stone (real or false), ink etc.
B2) He withdraws meticulously part of the first layer of the paper where the photo was printed
B3) He juxtaposes another fragment of image to the first one.
Indeed, these three actions aim at reconfiguring those images’ residues, which with the reception of one or more of these actions, definitely fail to correspond to the previously defined meaning.
An important information: when Nino takes a page from the context of a book, the page itself is a fragment of the whole (the publication) as the printed picture there is nonetheless a fragment of the original editorial design. However, it is important to note that this image, now separated from the context that it integrated, recovers its condition of signifier (“pure” or “impure”, does not matter (3)).
Therefore, when he detaches the page with the image, Nino resurrects or allows to emerge the fullest dimension of the image’s signifier. He frees it, so to speak, from the editor’s excessive interventions.
It is in this recovered image that the second type of Nino’s action takes place. It is in this stage that, free from the edition in which the artist found it, the image will be invested with new possibilities of meaning.
In theory, Nino could act in two ways on the images liberated from the edition: by enhancement or destruction, but he acts only following the second possibility. What is remarkable in these collages is that Nino tries all the time, and by various procedures (already mentioned here), to destroy those images. It seems his intention is, indeed, to recruit that series of procedures in order to make emerge, before the spectator’s eyes, the material dimension that sustains those forms, he draws attention to the fact that, before being women or men, fruits or landscapes, they are a material medium impregnated by pigment.
On the material dimension of the medium of the reproduced image, it is worth remembering what the North-American critic Rosalind Krauss wrote:
“(…) with photography, we do not have the feeling that the images or that the components of the image are on the medium, while this feeling exists – or may exist – with a painting. The photographic image is inside its medium: it integrates it. All that characterizes photography, for example the fact that it can be enlarged into different formats, reaffirms that the physical relationship of the image with its specific medium is distinct from painting (4)”.
Because Nino Cais works with reproductions from books, catalogs etc., he sees the photographic image all the time as being on the paper’s medium. And when he acts upon it by taking its upper layer or by applying paint or pigment or a stone or cloth etc., the artist denounces all the time the dimension of artifice that resides there. When he recovers through his strategies the reality of the medium that contains the image, he seems to want to deprive us (deprive us spectators or deprive us truly) from the alienation of our critical capacity where we habitually stand when before an image.
This disalienation he proposes is so complete that he – because of his procedures – gives it a poetic dimension that the images did not have in the first place or that were repressed by the precession of their condition as a signifier at the mercy of just one imposed meaning.
This accounts for the public interest about those portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, revealed each one in its own material dimension, which interact with us (individuals) in its own dimension as an object in the world.
Another interesting aspect in these processes chosen by Nino is that, despite his destructive impulse, he never radicalizes them to the point of suppressing the basic indicative of each of the images. He allows us to notice each image as a “portrait” or “landscape” or “still-life”. Safeguarding this basic evidence he reinforces the traditional characteristic of the painting and the photo. On the other hand, he further underscores his goal (consciously or not) of making us aware that we are facing constructions conducted by an intelligence (his own) that articulates a discourse from previous signs: History of Art, history of photography (including Dada and Surrealism), photographic reproductions, paper’s and stone’s materiality, the cloth and, among others, aggregated pigments.
With his collages, Nino reveals to us the reality of signs while elements of possible syntaxes and, thus, creates openings for disclosing the mechanisms of the reality that engulfs and produces us.
If in his collages Nino brings forth what is still possible to reveal about the mechanisms of art’s institutionalized discourses – directed by and assimilated by the mass media – his self-portraits seem to point at another direction.
What fascinated me immediately in his self-portraits was the popular dimension that most of them have: the definite frontality, exuberance of colors and prints, deliberate amateurism and improvised scenery, costumes, props and shots. In many of them I let myself be taken by Nino’s proposal of being understood as a transcultural traveller among material and imagetic resonances of the world (the Japanese fan, the towel from a popular market, the Indian talisman, the teapot from the countryside of Minas), or as incarnations of saints and pagan gods.
There is no doubt that his self-portraits can be understood also from these propositions. Evidently these photos are records of actions where performance and representation unite in enactments arising from Nino’s honest desire to incorporate those entities that appear during the photo-performances’ production process. However, when examining more carefully some of these self-portraits I began to add to one of its frequent characteristics - the frontality of the poses - aspects that reveal other possibilities of interpretation. First of all, associated always with frontality, Nino in many of them - apart from the garments that always resound an amalgam of different traditions - would maintain his face covered. And to serve as types of masks for the creation of each persona could be convened crochet doilies, vegetables, post-cards and fans from all over the world.
Nevertheless, more than masks, more than the use of these objects in order to supposedly preserve his identity, another evidence (initially not noticed) startled me: in many of the self-portraits the object covered the artist’s face was not really worn as a mask (5); in many others, Nino’s face presents itself between an object that prevents its identification (a photograph of a landscape, for example) and the posterior plan which can either be monochromatic or printed.
In these cases that the artist uses an object to hide his face there can be detected at least three planes: one in which the object is located, behind this one, one of Nino′s face and in the background the third one. Three planes that we see as if they were flat because of the image’s frontality. This strategy causes a strong impression that what lies before us is not exactly a portrait and even less a self-portrait: it is an image in which various shapes and planes are amalgamated.
This idea is significant because it points to the fact that the artist when he claims for himself or for part of his production the concept of the self-portrait - which affirms the artist’s “self” traditionally endorsed as a sort of mark of his individuality in the world - detonates this same concept, emphasizing the dispersion of individual uniqueness due to the option for dismantling the possibility of full identification of his image.
In those photographs the desire to distinguish among the forms that constitute the surroundings of the artist′s body is not evidenced (as in any predictable self-portrait). On the contrary: Nino makes an effort to mingle becoming one more element in the image he produces.
This wish to become lost among objects and plans that constitute the photos gains even greater force in the “self-portraits” in which he creates stronger strategies to achieve his goals. I am referring to those works in which Nino mingles with the objects (in this case fruits) with women’s stockings becoming one more element that constitutes the still-lifes and the photos in which he seeks to be molded into the dishware and the white towel from other still-lifes.
As I mentioned in the beginning, what intrigues me in Nino Cais’ collages and self-portraits is the difference of purpose and procedures that I notice in the two productions: if in his collages Nino carries, so to speak, an operation of denuding the artificial character of the image by emphasizing the medium’s materiality which supports and constitutes it, in his self-portraits the impression is that he struggles to blend into the image’s flatness as if his wish was to really blend in and disappear among the elements.
If there were two artists working together, we could conclude and be relieved that when proceeding so differently from the other one they would configure two opposing directions in today’s art which synthesize the obstacles that rule our relationship with the universe of images that surround us: the first revealing the dimension of artifice and illusion that emanates from this universe, the second by indulging unreservedly to the fascination it exerts over us, seeking to blend into inexorably.
The problem is that both directions inhabit the same subjectivity: they inhabit the same Nino as thesis and antithesis without any apparent possibility of synthesis. This situation - whose paradoxical dimension can frighten those who feel safe due to the alleged coherence emanating from the production of certain artists - stands out as a deviation from established standard; hence the restlessness that causes us. And precisely because it is constituting itself as a poetic corpus which unfolds unimaginable contradictions in the work of any artist until very recently is that Nino Cais’ work can be considered today one of the most exciting productions of the art scene. This is so because the work behaves as a great allegory constructed from numerous allegories (his production is enormous), a parable of the conflictive relationship that we, his contemporaries, have with the universe of images in which we are immersed.
1- The full materiality of the painting is a fundamental requirement for it to be perceived in all its integrity According to Susan Sontag: “...The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth object, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a painting does”. (Translated from: SONTAG, Susan. Ensaios sobre a fotografia. Rio de Janeiro: Arbor, 1981, p.5).
2- Of course I am not referring here to all photographs. I can have in front of me just one of the photos that integrate the Yanomamis series by Claudia Andujar and I do not need to know the whole series done by her in order to understand its most profound meaning. There are other images that could here be listed that would hold the same capacity as Andujar’s work. However, for the present text, it is interesting to point out this kind of gap in meaning that exists in a single photograph, suggested by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin when writing about the loss of the aura (at least in two of his texts: “A Small History of Photography” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. According to the author, it seems that precisely because of the lack of auratic dimension of the photographic image it will need to structure its meaning through the use of labels and series of photos in sequence (published in newspapers with significant circulation). Also from Bejamin’s point of view the strategy to invest sense in photographic series would find its fulfillment in cinema.
3- I use the terms ″pure″ and ″impure″ and I refer the reader to the pictures of the Yanomami by Claudia Andujar, mentioned in the previous footnote. Those photos present an “impure” dimension because they have precise characteristics that give them a full sense regardless of the role they fulfill in that famous photo essay. But the same photo in that essay, despite its ″intrinsic″ sense (a full sign, consisting of a signifier that is its own meaning) does not prevent it from being used in another discourse (accompanied by a label or integrating another series of images). In theory, one of those photos by Andujar can be used as a manifesto against the excessive freedom of the indigenous people or as part of a series on the need to exterminate paganism among them (these are just examples that I hope will never come true). However, even if used in this manner, the power of such images, the amalgam between signifier and signified that exists in each one of those signs will prevent the message from becoming crystal clear. On the other hand, a picture of a woman in a bikini on the balcony of an apartment tends to be a significant ″pure″, in other words, can be either a picture of a famous American artist, or an example of the shamelessness of Western women, or take any other direction, depending on the discourse in which it is inserted.
4- Translated from: KRAUSS, Rosalind. La fotografia. Por uma teoria de los desplazamientos.Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, S.A. 2002, p. 102.
5- Except perhaps for the crochet towels that, by their very structure, allow the artist, through the holes of the material, see, breathe and speak.